medical marijuana

Cannabis and the Pharmaceutical Industry…

Even with all the political uncertainty surrounding the federal government’s current stance and potential actions on marijuana legalization, it’s clear that the Trump Administration sees medical marijuana’s potential.

In his controversial remarks last month regarding a question on the state/federal conflict over marijuana laws, White House press secretary Sean Spicer made a distinction between medicinal and recreational cannabis.

“The president understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing, especially terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them,” Spicer said at the time.

And over a year ago, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told Bill O’Reilly he was “a hundred percent” in favor of medical marijuana.

Marijuana remains a Schedule One drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act; which means the government views cannabis in the same light as heroin, LSD and peyote: as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” And last summer the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) denied requests to have marijuana rescheduled.

But despite the DEA’s entrenched position, other federal agencies have a more open viewpoint when it comes to marijuana’s medical benefits.

On its web site, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledges that, over the past few decades, “there has been significant interest in the potential utility of marijuana for a variety of medical conditions, including those that already have FDA-approved therapies.”

It also notes that some states have removed restrictions on local health care professionals using marijuana “as a medical treatment for a variety of conditions” – including glaucoma, AIDS wasting syndrome, neuropathic pain, cancer, MS, chemotherapy-induced nausea and some types of seizures. The FDA has also approved several drugs that contain synthetic versions of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in cannabis.

At the same time, some pharmaceutical companies are putting negative assertions about medicinal cannabis to the test.

British-based GW Pharmaceuticals, for example, has Epidiolex, a seizure medication. Epidiolex contains cannabidiol (CBD), a non-euphoric chemical compound found in cannabis. Epidiolex has successfully gone through three sets of clinical trials and may be headed for FDA approval later this year.

And last month the company revealed preliminary data on another experimental drug that contains both CBD and THC, the cannabinoid that produces the “high” in marijuana, for potential use in brain cancer patients.

But so long as cannabis remains a Schedule One drug, most U.S. pharmaceutical companies will steer clear of it.

“There’s been very few instances of the federal government allowing reputable American pharmaceutical research hospitals, companies or anyone else from doing real clinical trials of these potential uses for cannabis as medicine,”  Tom Adams, editor in chief of Arcview Market Research, tells Blunt Network.

But Adams points out that some states have been setting up their own medical marijuana trials.

Last year Pennsylvania passed a law that promotes “high quality research into the effectiveness and utility of medical marijuana.”

The law also authorized a publicly-funded and state-run research program for studying the effectiveness of cannabis in treating certain conditions.

“This is the first time there has been any responsibility taken for improving the science behind medical cannabis,”  Dr. Charles V. Pollack Jr., director of the new Center for Medical Cannabis Education and Research at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, told The Morning Call in August.

Pennsylvania, says Adams, “essentially defied the federal government and said we’re not only going to legalize consumption and sale, we’re going to encourage our local research hospitals and companies to begin clinical trials and start developing pharmaceuticals utilizing cannabis.”

Some scientists are even suggesting that cannabis could be used to help counter the growing epidemic of opiod abuse and addiction in the United States.

A study released last year by University of Georgia researchers also found that medical marijuana was chipping away at the profits of the prescription drug companies. It estimated that in 2013 there were savings of over $165 million in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit program in states where medicinal cannabis was legal.

Study co-author W. David Bradford, the Busbee Chair in Public Policy at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, notes that it takes several years of research and costs on average “somewhere north of $800 million” to bring a new prescription drug onto the market.

And because of those costs, he tells Blunt Network, many of the pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to devote their time and money into a cannabis-based drug when consumers can currently buy legal, medicinal marijuana for a fraction of the price.

But Bradford adds that reluctance can always change, as scientists make new advances in cannabis research.

“There always will be a market for very finely-tuned prescription products” he says, “such that for some important disease where it turns out that some cannabinoid is really effective.”

That’s when the pharmaceutical companies will have the advantage, he continues, with a medical marijuana product.

“Keeping cannabis restricted is in their profit interests because they can isolate the cannabinoids, they can get FDA approval and market it exclusively for five years,” he says.

Another strong market for marijuana, says Tom Adams of Arcview Reseach, could be the low-cost nutraceutical market.

“For substances and treatments that don’t have to go through the whole FDA process, can’t make explicit claims that drugs can,” he says.  “But people are finding them to be helpful for a whole list of things. That could be where cannabis goes to.”